Tag Archives: The Thing About December

From a Low and Quiet Sea by Donal Ryan: Love, loss and connection

Cover imageI’ve a somewhat chequered history with Donal Ryan’s writing. While I enjoyed The Spinning Heart and The Thing About December I couldn’t work up the ecstatic enthusiasm so many other readers were voicing. Then I read All We Shall Know which made it on to my 2016 books of the year list. It’s early days, but I’m pretty sure From a Low and Quiet Sea will do the same this year. Ryan’s carefully crafted, moving novella tells the stories of three very different men, bringing them neatly together at its end.

Farouk watches his wife through their kitchen window, resenting her apparent flirtation with a people trafficker. Martha had not wanted to leave Syria but as the casualties pile up in Farouk’s hospital she’s been persuaded, telling their young daughter they’re off on an adventure. Lampy helps out at the local care home, driving the minibus, changing the sheets and listening to the residents while trying not to think of the girl who’s left him. He’s already let fly at his sharp-tongued, pleased-with-himself grandfather at breakfast, calmed by his mother, the only parent he’s ever known. John is making his confession, the first honest one he’s made since childhood. He’s a big wheel in the town, a fixer, deeply scarred by the loss of his golden brother who died when John was thirteen. There’s much to confess, from the systematic corruption of good men to the murder of his lover’s boyfriend. These three come together in a surprising way in the book’s fourth and final section.

It’s a tricky manoeuvre to tell your characters’ stories in three discrete parts then merge them as subtly as Ryan does in this novella which explores love, loss and connection. He’s a writer who excels at characterisation. Each of his main protagonists has a very different voice: the sober melancholy of Farouk; the quick-to-anger stream of consciousness of Lampy and John’s shocking yet deadpan confession. Even the bit-part players are acutely observed. Ryan’s characteristic sharp ear for speech is often accompanied by a pleasing humour: the ceaseless litany of the old men’s complaint on the bus and their shouting of advice at Lampy when it breaks down is a fine example. His prose has a lilting rhythmic beauty, particularly in Farouk’s story, offset by the colourful vernacular of Pop’s self-regarding anecdotes. I could fill this post with quotes but here are just a few of my favourites:

He flipped onto his back and looked at the long ragged tear of the galaxy, like a wound in the sky, weeping

Talking to herself in a way that would seem strange to anyone not used to hearing her; laughing here and there at some recollection, some good story she’d been told and had kept to herself, for times she was without company

His grandfather was wicked; when he was in form his tongue could slice the world in two

Now I understand what all the fuss was about.

All We Shall Know by Donal Ryan: Redemption in spades

Cover imageI ended my review of Donal Ryan’s last novel, The Thing About December, by quoting Litlove’s idea that the higher your expectations for a book, the greater your disappointment when they’re not met. Both Ryan’s novels had been praised to the skies and although there was much to admire in his second, those raised expectations had not been met. Perhaps it’s because I’d learnt my lesson that this time around they were exceeded or perhaps it’s because Ryan has ventured into different territory. Written in gorgeously lyrical prose, All We Shall Know tells the story of Melody Shee’s pregnancy and the unexpected friendship she finds with a young Traveller woman.

After several miscarriages Melody is twelve weeks into her pregnancy. Hardly in a position to criticise given his visits to prostitutes and his predilection for porn, Pat storms out at the news that his wife is carrying the child of a man she supposedly met online. In truth, the father is a seventeen-year-old Traveller she had been teaching to read. As Melody’s pregnancy progresses she looks back over her life: the loss of her mother, her betrayal of her closest friend and the soured passion of her marriage. She visits the Travellers’ site, hoping to catch a glimpse of Martin but finding herself drawn instead to a young woman sitting on the steps of her caravan. Mary is caught up in a feud between clans. Unable to conceive, she’s left her husband so that he can find a fertile partner, bringing dishonour upon her own family. Retribution must be exacted and Melody finds herself caught up in Mary’s story in ways she could hardly imagine. By the end of this slim, intensely moving novella, redemption on a Shakespearean scale has been served.

Ryan structures his story in brief chapters, each one covering a week of Melody’s pregnancy in which she lets slip details of her life. She’s an involving narrator, unflinchingly honest in her confession of guilt at her treatment of others, from her father whose eager concern has been rebuffed for years to the betrayal of her dearest friend in exchange for the approbation of the ‘cool girls’ and access to Pat. ‘I’m bad, for sure. There’s no kindness in me’, she says. Ryan’s writing is both clear and clean yet lyrical – ‘we insisted on marrying each other, and lowering ourselves onto a bed of terrible, scalding, comfortably familiar pain’ – and his ear for dialect is superb. He summons up beautifully the claustrophobia of living in a small town where everyone knows your business and no one is afraid of loudly judging you for it. All these are characteristics familiar from Ryan’s previous novels but what stood out in this one was his story telling: a seamless interweaving of both Mary’s and Melody’s stories leading to a dramatic conclusion. For me, it’s Ryan’s best novel yet.

The Thing about December by Donal Ryan: Greed and what it does to the soul

Cover imageI seem to be spending reading time across the water this week, more by accident than design it has to be said. After Michèle Forbes’ Belfast-set Ghost Moth earlier in the week Donal Ryan’s second novel took me south of the border to rural Ireland. Expectations had been ratcheted up by the ecstatic reception given to his first, The Spinning Heart, which I managed to miss, but I have to admit that I found it a little difficult at first: Ryan’s colloquial style takes some getting used to and Johnsey’s head isn’t the most comfortable place to be. Painfully self-conscious and soft-hearted, he’s a simple young man, the target of local bully boys. Beginning four months after his father’s death, the novel follows a year in Johnsey’s life, a year marked by further loss, a terrible beating and a misrepresentation which makes him the butt of resentment and disgust. His mother is still grief-stricken, hardly able to get the supper on the table, and Johnsey doesn’t know what to do, but worse is yet to come. When his mother dies he’s faced with loneliness so terrible that the beating which lands him in hospital for a month where he meets nurse Lovely Voice and Mumbly Dave, comes to seem like a blessing. Once discharged, he finds the village seething with schemes for a grand land development, all agog to hear his own plans for selling the family farm and none too sympathetic to any ideas of loyalty which make him reluctant to do so thus getting in their way.

Once you have your reading ears attuned Johnsey’s brogue sings out from the page, often edged with a dark humour and full of vivid images: two fellow ‘goms’ stand next to the ‘cool lads’ like ‘bits of auld watery broccoli beside a plate of steak and chips’; gossips gloat over a tragedy ‘like crows picking at a flungaway snack box’. He’s a tragicomic, endearing character occasionally irritating in his constant self-deprecation. By viewing the world through the eyes of a simple, unworldly man Ryan takes a swipe at the greed which raged through the Celtic Tiger years of Ireland’s apparently burgeoning economy which, as we all know, ended in a bucketful of tears, throwing into stark contrast the feverish money-grabbing of even the more sympathetic characters. It’s a novel which didn’t quite meet my expectations but they were sky-high, something about which litlove at Tales from the Reading Room has a theory: if you expect a lot from a book and are disappointed, your disappointment will be greater than if your expectations were low. Equally, if your expectations were low but the book was good, your enjoyment is greater. I hope I’ve paraphrased that correctly. Pretty convincing, I think – how about you?